Turkey has long been regarded as the bridge between the West and Middle East. Not only is Turkey a democracy, it has a moderate Muslim population while much of the government and economy is mirrored after the West. At the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions, this writer had hoped Turkey could become a regional leader and role model for fledgling democracies, yet scandal after scandal from then-Prime Minister, current-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan derailed that opportunity.
Becoming more and more authoritarian in nature, the Erdogan government’s apparent failure to combat the Islamic State to suppress Turkey’s Kurdish population was a new low in late 2014. Despite a troubled history between US allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however, the two may well soon be teaming up to address the Islamic State and the civil war in Syria. Although President Erdogan must repair a great deal of damage, it seems Turkey may finally be part of the solution, yet the Saudi-Turkey alliance is not the most surprising development.
Apartheid, an era of South African history defined by the brutal oppression and torture of blacks, ended with leaders like Nelson Mandela rejecting the impulse to seek revenge and dominance over white South Africans. Mandela recognized there was no punishment, no form of restitution, and no means to prosecute the huge number of individuals responsible for what was done to black South Africans, so he and other black leaders chose to seek reconciliation instead.
Rather than tearing their nation apart along racial lines, South Africa’s leaders formed Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to afford victims a channel to peacefully express their grievances, face their victimizers, and learn what had happened to loved ones who had disappeared under apartheid rule. By doing so, they started a healing process that has helped South Africa do well in a region plagued by poor governance. The Mandela approach to resolving conflicts is unique and rarely pursued on a national scale, yet the lesson to be learned is an essential one.
It seems Turkey may well be learning that very lesson. In 1915, between 1 million and 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were slaughtered, worked to death, or sent on death marches into the Syria desert. Uncomfortable with its own history, Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, has lobbied hard to avoid recognizing the genocides of the Armenians and other ethnic minorities. So successful has Turkey been that the United States, Britain, and, ironically, Israel, along with most other countries, have been unwilling to declare the mass murders a genocide.
Offering a sliver of humility and recognition, the Turkish government will allow Armenians for the first time to conduct religious services this week to commemorate the events that took place toward the end of World War I. Officials will even send a senior government representative, thereby symbolically accepting the wrong done. Clearly, this peace-offering is only a first-step, but it may well be a first-step in righting a past wrong as well as an attempt to better respect minority rights and interests.
When wrongdoings cannot be sufficiently undone or addressed through restitution, grievances can be addressed and conflicts resolved through the expression and public recognition of those grievances. Given the revolutionary forces driving change and unrest in the Middle East, countries like Turkey face the need to resolve past grievances and ongoing conflicts in order to thrive. Consequently, Turkey needs to reconcile with the Armenians, as well as the Kurdish and other minorities, in order to strengthen Turkey.
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